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Picture Perfect: The Growing Market of Commercial Food Photography in Cleveland 

On a typical day, Heidi Robb will hit a few markets to load up on fresh produce, pop into a butcher shop for a thick steak, maybe visit the fishmonger for some plump Gulf shrimp before heading into the kitchen. There, she'll clean and prep the veggies, get the mains started on the grill, and then shift her focus to the sides and sauces. The table is set, the red wine is poured, and Robb plates up the gorgeous feast with keen attention to detail.

Time to enjoy the fruits of her labor? Hardly — this is the part when Robb, a professional food stylist, steps out of the way to make room for the photographer, who pops off a few dozen shots while the food still looks fresh.

Welcome to the world of commercial food photography, where all that hard work is done at the behest of a paying client. While chefs and restaurants often serve as the face of the local food scene, there is a robust pocket dedicated to photographing that food for web, print and television. And, say practitioners of the craft, Cleveland is primed for growth in this multifaceted field.

"I think it's happening right now alongside our incredible culinary scene," says David Hagen, who along with his business partner Andrew Burkle just opened this city's first photography studio dedicated exclusively to shooting food. BurkleHagen, as the studio is called, joins others in the local market that, while not exclusive to food photography, are lions in the industry.

Hagen, who for years worked at Kalman & Pabst, a 25-year-old Cleveland-based studio that shoots for national food brands, says that every aspect of his 6,000-square-foot Asiatown studio was planned around commercial food photography.

"We designed the kitchen with help from food stylists from Cleveland, Chicago and Pittsburgh," Hagen explains. "You gotta keep the food stylists happy — they can be a tough group."

Take the freight elevator up a few floors, slide open the gate, and the first thing you'll see are the twin commercial kitchens, outfitted with double sinks, double ovens, double stove tops and islands the size of, well, islands. There are overhead lights and power outlets galore, and the floors are springy enough to stand on for hours. In addition to the kitchen, there's a walk-in pantry for foodstuffs and a prop room filled with plates, silver, glassware, linens and anything else a shoot might require.

"To have a fully functioning commercial kitchen in a studio is a dream," says Robb, who says it's not uncommon for a stylist to have to schlep cooking equipment with them to a gig. "It makes everything go so much smoother."

The studio might look massive — and it is — but it can fill up fast. "When you're working with a large commercial account, there might be six, eight people on the shoot," says Robb. In addition to the stylist, there's the assistant stylist, prop stylist and photographers, of course. But on the client side there might be the art director, design director and account manager.

That kind of space doesn't come cheap in places like New York, Chicago and LA, markets that historically have been hotbeds of commercial food photography. When you combine Cleveland's abundant, affordable space with an increasingly talented and food-focused workforce, you have all the makings of an industry on the rise.

In addition to large national brands like Nestle (and its gazillion sub-brands), Smucker's, Vita-Mix and others that are based here, large restaurant groups like Zack Bruell's, whom BurkleHagen shoots frequently, provide plenty of work. But local firms needn't focus solely on local outfits as clients routinely travel to fulfill their commercial photography needs.

"We're thinking regional and national," says Hagen. "The tough part of our job is to convince clients to travel to Cleveland instead of Chicago. But when people do come here, they're so surprised by what we have they have no problem coming back."

Burkle, who relocated here from Chicago to open the studio, says that there's more work than ever thanks to the increasing demand for food images in magazines, websites, blogs and even social media. Long-term relationships, referrals from contented clients, and stylists like Robb and others who bring clients with them are providing BurkleHagen with a strong start.

But food photography for web and print is just the tip of the iceberg, says Robb, who has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Michael Symon, Stephen Raichlen and Martha Stewart Productions. "I think Cleveland is poised and primed not only for food photography, but with the access to space and talent that we have here, we can produce food television shows, food magazines and cookbooks."


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